The Creed: Holy, Catholic Church

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.

1 Peter 2:4-9

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,

    a cornerstone chosen and precious;

and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected

    has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble,

    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

***

I had reason this week to go through our church’s historical archives. It was both a chore and a joy, sifting through documents and photos, looking for names and faces I recognize, discovering stories I never would have dreamt were part of this church’s lore. 

One of my favorite stories from this particular church—Crescent Springs Presbyterian—is how they built the original building. The congregation worshipped for two years in a school classroom while they saved and dreamed (and struggled to get out of childsize chairs!). In 1901, they laid the cornerstone of this church—that in itself is not unusual, plenty of churches make that symbolic act. But this congregation, these 40 or so people, did not see creating their church as a matter of symbolism, but as the direct mission of their own lives. And so, the story goes, each of them hauled stone from the nearby quarry, and with their own hands they built that original church. They did outsource the roof, I think, to a contractor for the tune of about $20, but mostly they built this church themselves, stone by stone.

I don’t know if they realized they were living out our reading today when they did it, but the connections are powerful. The letters of Pastor Peter are some of the later entries in our Bible, decades after Paul founded his shaky fledgling Christian communities, when everything is not so new and shiny, and the churches are starting to calcify, starting to freeze in place. And so Pastor Peter writes, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Stone is an interesting image. Stone is solid, hard, reliable, unmovable. Yet in some miraculous ways Peter calls his congregation to be living stones—firmly set in place, yet not stuck in their ways; able to withstand the storms that rage, yet not unfeeling to the world around them. The people of the church are to be living stones, building a spiritual house. This is what church is to Peter. Not a real building, but a spiritual one. The people. The living stones.

Last week we talked about the Holy Spirit in the apostles’ creed, and I mentioned how, despite how quick the line goes by, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is actually the lynchpin of the entire creed, enabling our faith in god and Christ, and setting the stage for the laundry list of beliefs that follow. When we say today, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” that is only accomplished by the holy spirit. 

But what does it mean to say, “I believe in the holy catholic church?”

First, breaking down the language, beginning with the last word. What is the church, anyway? 

There are two Greek words we translate as church. The first and most common, used more than eighty times in the New Testament, is ekklesia, where we get our word ecclesiastical. It literally means called out, as in a gathering of people called together. It echoes the Hebrew word qahal, which also means gathering. Imagine the shofar blasting, and everyone streaming from their homes to a common meeting place. This gathering of people—whether its in a temple, a desert, a camp, a battlefield, a house, a field, or a town square—this is the church. The people gathered, not the place where they come. So when we say, “I believe in the church,” it doesn’t mean “I believe in steeples and pews and pulpits.” It says “I believe in the people of God, that something happens when they get together. I believe that I’m not called to do this faith thing alone.

And so that leads us, backwards again, to the word catholic. This, of course, does not mean Roman Catholic, because Roman Catholicism did not exist when the creed was created. In Greek, the word catholic is a bit complicated, but it means something like “throughout the whole” or even “according to the whole.” It carries with it a sense of universality, but also particularity—that it exists everywhere, and is shaped by every group of people in the places it exists. The church does not land like a spaceship in a new place; it is formed and shaped by the people who comprise it, and their wisdom and traditions become part of the whole. Theologian Justo Gonzalez, writes, “a variety of experiences and perspectives is not contrary to the catholicity of the church: quite the contrary, it is a necessary sign of it.”[1] To say the church is catholic—universal—is not to say it is the same, but that it is unified throughout its differences. 

As a kid, I wrinkled my nose at the word catholic in the creed, but I’ve come to love it, because it reminds me that as focused as I can get on this church, Crescent Springs, there are millions of other churches in Christ’s body, and so the success of Christ’s mission does not fall on our worship and our budget and our potlucks and our session. And yet it also reminds me that what we do here matters to those millions of other churches; that we are all interwoven with each other, despite our boundaries and feuds. 

And finally, that pesky word, holy. I mean, when I look at the church, and all its done over the generations, the wars, the crusades, the abuse, the pettiness, the exclusions… sometimes I struggle with the word holy. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls the holiness of the church part of “the scandal of appearances”[2] in the creed. How are we supposed to profess belief in the holiness of the church when it appears to be so frequently unholy?

Yet holiness, by some miracle, is baked into the church, even its very name. The second Greek word translated as church is kuriakon, which means “belonging to the Lord,” and that went to German as kirsch and English as church. The church is the gathering of people that belong to Jesus, who are set apart for his work. Pastor Adam Hamilton says, “It helps to understand that when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we’re not saying the church is filled with really righteous people who are nearly perfect. The word holy in the biblical context means belonging to God, or ‘sacred to’ God or ‘set apart for’ God. You’ve likely heard it said that the church is not a country club for perfect people, but instead a hospital for broken and sinful people who are slowly being made well. The church, then, is holy when those who are a part of her recognize that she belongs to God and not to her members. She is holy when those who consider the church home don’t ask ‘What do we want our church to do for us?” but rather “What does God want his church to do for him?’”[3]

The church does not always express its holiness well. We are geniuses at hiding Christ’s light under the bushel of our own human failings. Yet the light is still there; the spirit is still active; the church, despite it all, is still the place God chooses. I’ve said it before, but I often think that God believes in the church more than I do, and so I stay. And when I say the creed, each time I get to this line—I believe in the holy catholic church—it reminds me of who we are supposed to be, and who, by the gift of the spirit, we can be. A people set apart for God. At its best, the body of Christ in the world. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk away from that possibility, even if I never see it perfectly fulfilled. it’s a promise worth spending a lifetime chasing.

Today we are ordaining and installing a new set of elders, a new class of leaders for our church, our little fragment of the one holy, catholic church. Elders see up close and personal the best and worst of church life—there is nothing worse than a session meeting gone bad, and nothing more holy than watching God redeem even that mess. Tim and Jennifer and Joe know that they are signing up to see the church in the plain light of day, and they also know they are signing up to see the Church in the glow of Christ’s light. It is a hard and holy task. 

But they will not guide and steer and work and build and pray and discern alone. The church will not rest solely on their shoulders. As the gathered people, we will pray for them, and work with them, and trust their wisdom. And more than that, the spirit will fill them with her gifts every step of the way. 

You see listed in your bulletin a reading from the Old Testament, from Numbers. I encourage you to read it for yourself, but I’m going to summarize it here, because I think it is an amazing, dead on, funny, beautiful story about what it means to be church. It is a story about the church in its rawest form; the church in the wilderness, the gathered Hebrews, newly freed from slavery but scared of what comes next, walking a path and not knowing quite where it will lead, with only Moses and a new, unknown God to lead them. 

So the people get anxious. They get hungry. Then they get hangry. And they complain. And God sends them manna, but they still complain, because while they aren’t starving it’s like living off rice cakes, and in Egypt they had fish, and they want meat!

And Moses loses it. He can’t take the whining. He can’t take the anxiety, and the frustration, the nitpicking. So he yells at God. “Why did you make me their leader? Am I their mom? Am I supposed to feed them and carry them the whole way? These people are too much. I’m done. If this is how it’s going to be, just kill me now.”

I mean, it’s a little melodramatic, but have you ever served on committee where all the people do is complain? I’ve certainly vented with similar words.

God’s response, though, is interesting. He doesn’t tell Moses to buck up. God doesn’t strip Moses of his responsibilities for being tired of them. Instead, God says to Moses: “Gather together seventy men from among the leaders of Israel, men whom you know to be respected and responsible. Take them to the Tent of Meeting. I’ll meet you there. I’ll come down and speak with you. I’ll take some of the Spirit that is on you and place it on them; they’ll then be able to take some of the load of this people—you won’t have to carry the whole thing alone.”

Then, God says, I’ll give them meat—so much meat they’ll be sick of it. And Moses responds, “I’m standing here surrounded by 600,000 men on foot and you say, ‘I’ll give them meat. There literally aren’t enough cows in our herds or fish in the sea. It can’t be done.”

And God says, “Now you think I can’t take care of you? Let’s just wait and see.”

So Moses goes out and calls together seventy leaders and stands them around the tent, and God comes down in a cloud, and puts some of God’s spirit on those seventy leaders, and once, just once, in that rush of the spirit on them, they prophesy.

If that were all there were to the story, it would still be amazing. But there’s a coda. There’s two men, listed as leaders, Eldad and Medad, and they were supposed to be at the Tent but they stayed in the camp. And even so, they get their share of the spirit. They prophesy right where they are. 

And a young man runs and tells Moses about this, and Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, groomed to be the next in leadership, throws a fit. “Moses, stop them!”

But Moses is wiser than his protégée. In the work of leadership, the goal is more people on board with God’s spirit, not less. “I wish all God’s people were prophets,” he declares. “I wish God’s spirit would rest on all of them.”

And over the thousands of years since that story was first written down, we have seen Moses’ wish come true. We have seen the Spirit rest on all sorts of people, the church raise up new leaders, holiness arising from unexpected quarters. 

Today Jennifer and Joe and Tim are summoned to the tent of meeting, to receive again the spirit anointing their leadership; but remember, my friends, that there are people full of the spirit outside the tent too, outside the session room. Listen to their wisdom, and rejoice in what God is doing. 

The church is a people. And so sometimes it whines and complains and gets jealous and exclusionary. The church is a people. And so sometimes it loves and dares and dreams and prophesies and makes miracles happen. The church is a people. That’s the curse and the beauty of it all. 

Timothy Luke Johnson writes, “the church is ideally God’s laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see and imitate as the basis for its own rebirth as God’s creation.”[4]

At her best, the church is a microcosm of what the world could be. A place where all people belong and have a voice, a place where we put forgiveness before revenge, a place where we share common values and common goals, a place where no one leaves hungry.

So, despite her shortcomings, despite her flaws, despite the bloodstains on her history and the gray hairs on my own head, I cling to the church, because I believe. 

I believe in the people all across this world, the beautiful living stones of God’s church. 

I believe in you, the living stones of CSPC. 

I believe in the church. 

Amen. 


[1] González, Justo L. The Apostles’ Creed for Today. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Kindle edition.

[2]Johnson, Luke T. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print, p. 254.

[3]Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why : Exploring the Apostles’ Creed. , 2016. Kindle edition.

[4] Johnson, Luke T. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print, p. 256.

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